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Finding My Way–Without My Parents
Joel Rembert

When my grandparents came to take me from my parents they walked into a nightmare. According to them I was outside in the yard eating the dog’s food and I had poured gasoline on myself and was running around crying. I don’t know where my parents were at the time.

When I was born, my dad was 22 and my mom was 14. When I was a year old my father was deployed to Iraq and my mother wanted to go with him. So they gave my grandparents legal custody of me before they left.

As I grew up, I tried to live normally, replacing the words “Mom” and “Dad” with “Grandma” and “Grandpa,” but it embarrassed me.

My mom came back into my life when I was 9, after she was granted visitation. She came almost every weekend and took me to parks and restaurants like Sizzler and Uno. Seeing her smile and laugh made me feel safe and confident. Watching her eat her favorite dishes and giggle also made me feel good. She thought I was better off with my grandmother so she didn’t try to get me back. That was all right with me.

My parents were separated at that time. I don’t know why my dad didn’t come around, but I built up resentment toward him because of it.

Not having my dad around to raise me was tough on my self-esteem. I felt out of place around my friends and family members who had fathers. If someone said, “My dad is taking me out to the park to hang out, what about you?” I’d make up things like, “I’m going to help my grandfather work on remodeling the kitchen.”

Then, when I was 10, my mother and I were upset with each other over something little, and she punched me in the arm. I told my grandmother what happened. That was the last time I saw my mother.

Still, it was the effort she took to see me that counts and makes me OK with her not being in my life now. I understand that she was so young, still only 24, and she was doing the best she could.

A Mask Hid My Sadness

As time went on, I learned more about my parents’ lives. They divorced, and my dad started another family with a woman named Nicole. I developed even more resentment for him. When I’d hear his name, which is unfortunately my middle name, I visualized a bird’s nest with only me in it. Being without him was painful, but I was also so angry at him. I wore a mask pretending I was happy, making jokes when I was sad.

Middle school and high school were tough for me because I was self-conscious. Not living with either of my parents made me feel like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit anywhere. I felt like the odd one getting picked up from school by my grandfather or grandmother. Every time I was asked, “Where are your parents?” I’d feel bad. I’d proudly say I was disowned. I thought by saying that, people wouldn’t need to be careful about what they said around me.

Then, in my senior year, everything changed.

Last October, I lost my military ID. When you are a child of a military officer, you receive benefits. In order to get a new ID, I was told I had to meet with my dad in person. I had my uncle call him to tell him, but my dad said, “Joel can get whatever he wants. He just needs to speak to me himself and be a man.”

My dad wasn’t man enough to spend time with me, so it annoyed me that he had the nerve to tell me to act like a man. When I called, at least I had the manners to make sure that my first words were not, “Hey, I need an ID, stranger.” The conversation was brief and formal.

image by YC-Art Dept

I had my uncle speak to him to again to schedule a time and place to meet. I just wanted my ID. When it was arranged, I talked to my grandmother because I was so nervous about meeting him.

“How am I supposed to react when I see my dad? What do I say? What do I do?”

“Joel, he’s your father. You should know what you want to say already. I know I would.”

I was pissed at that response. Just because he’s my dad I am supposed to magically know how to bond with him? My father was no different than a stranger to me.

I approached the meeting like a date; I contemplated what clothes to wear and prepared a brag sheet of the cool things I’d done because I wanted my father to be proud of me. I decided I wanted him back in my life.


The day to meet my dad finally arrived. I brought my two close friends for emotional support just in case he didn’t show up. My uncle arranged for us to meet in Central Park near 96th Street. It was a freezing day and we were shivering. I told them to go home but they just hugged me and waited. After a few hours, my uncle texted me to tell me my dad had called to say he couldn’t make it. He gave me my dad’s number. I was irritated, but I called.

“Hey Dad.”

“Who’s this?”

“Your son, Joel.”

“Oh hey son, how are you?”

“I am fine, you sound tired.”

“Yes I am. I work all night and sleep all day.”

“I will make this quick then, I just wanted to say hi and that I love you, Dad. You can forget about the ID. It’s not that important.”

image by YC-Art Dept

“I love you too, son, and don’t worry. You didn’t need to see me in person for the ID. I sent the people at the base station in Brooklyn the approval to get you a new ID. Just tell them my Social Security number and my address.”

“OK, Dad, um…. How’s everything? I heard you got a new son and a new wife.”

“Everything is fine, and you should come visit sometime. You owe us a visit.”

“Sure thing, Dad.”

”Well bud, I am tired. I am going back to sleep. I love you Joel.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

The conversation was disappointing, but hearing him tell me he loved me made me feel happy. I thought the reason he left was because he didn’t love me, but after hearing him say that he did, the heaviness of his absence finally lifted. He sounded sincere. For the first time, I didn’t feel like it was my fault that he left, or that he hated me.

Not My Fault

I’ve often felt empty, because when my dad left me—and my mom too somewhat—I thought I was to blame. I developed a self-hatred that I’ve held on to. I’ve kept these feelings and thoughts to myself. Then, in February, my guidance counselor suggested a therapist; she felt I needed an outlet for my feelings. I agreed to see the therapist, and I started opening up to her.

Letting it out to someone willing to listen and help instead of just brushing me off makes me feel good. Thanks to our connection, I feel less abandoned. One thing I learned in therapy is that the feeling of being abandoned by my parents made me abandon the love I had for myself.

I still have yet to meet my dad, but now we text each other from time to time. Having him back in my life, even in this small way, feels good. I recently texted him a picture of my wall of college acceptance letters and all I got was, “OK cool.” That’s not the greatest congratulations in the world but it’s a start. All I want to know is that he loves me and he cares.

I still haven’t heard from my mother. I have thought about contacting her again but I don’t know how to reach her. I don’t know how I feel toward her for disappearing over a disagreement. But maybe there’s more to it that I’m not aware of.

I feel free now because I now know that their absence is not my fault; I was a victim of circumstance. I learned this lesson on my own but thanks to therapy I’ve realized the significance of it.

Sometimes there are situations in life that just happen and we have no control over them. Now that I’ve figured that out, I can move on. For me, that means looking forward to college and studying psychology.

Joel received a full scholarship to Syracuse University.

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